by Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES -- Superman's arch nemesis may not be Lex Luthor. It may be moviegoers.
While the son of Krypton remains America's most iconic superhero and one of its most popular comic books, Superman has had little luck over 35 years getting a film franchise off the ground.
Not since Christopher Reeve donned the tights and cape in 1978 has Superman taken flight in theaters, despite a high-profile attempt to resuscitate the story in 2006.
Warner Bros. takes another crack at it Thursday when Man of Steel opens. And while audiences have been reluctant over the past 25 years to drop much money on the superhero, analysts say Steel could break the "Superman curse" at the box office.
Analysts say that a weekend debut of $100 million or more could ensure at least a trilogy for the team behind the man of Metropolis: stars Henry Cavill and Amy Adams, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan.
"The signs are that the franchise is back," says Jeff Bock, analyst and vice-president of industry-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Of course, with comic-book heroes, you need more than big box office. You have to connect with fanboys. We thought the franchise was back a few years ago."
Indeed, Superman Returns was to herald Supe's comeback in 2006. Directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh, the film managed a respectable $200 million in theaters -- just $5 million less than Nolan's Batman Begins claimed a year earlier.
But Returns didn't win over comic-book fans, who eviscerated the $270 million film for its bland protagonist. While Batman would become a box-office juggernaut, Superman went back to the studio vault until this year.
Bock says there's more at stake for Superman and Warner Bros. this time around. Coming on the heels of Disney's The Avengers, the superhero all-star team that captured $624 million at the box office last year, Warner Bros. -- and DC Comics, which publishes Superman -- needs a hit to not only get Superman aloft, but to trigger future superhero tales.
"Superman has to work, or there's no Justice League movie," Bock says of the prospective film adaptation of the comic book that unites, among others, DC heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. "That's what the movie fans really want to see. But it all starts with Superman."
He's off to a strong start. Early reviews have been positive -- about two-thirds of critics are giving the movie a thumbs-up, says pollsters RottenTomatoes.com.
While Warner Bros. executives are quietly saying they'd be satisfied with an opening around $85 million, "they really need to open at $100 million or above to ensure a long-term future," Bock says.
DC Comics could also use a boost at the cineplex. According to a study by Box Office Mojo, movies from rival Marvel Comics, which include Iron Man and Spider-Man, make an average of $187 million. Films based on DC Comics, like Batman and Green Lantern, average $129 million.
Unlike, say, an action movie, comic-book films need to do more than resonate at the box office.
"You need to spark passion in a comic-book movie," says Katey Rich, executive editor at Cinema Blend. "You want to get fans excited to get excited to spend enough on future movies. Warner Bros. is clearly putting its muscle behind this, and that could be enough to get fans excited again."
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